Yehuda Weinstein.
Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, center, passes African migrants during a tour of south Tel Aviv last week. Photo by Nir Keidar
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The Interior Ministry pressures African migrants in Israeli detention centers to agree to voluntary repatriation, in violation of UN policy, according to human rights organizations. Two lawyers for the Hotline for Migrant Workers Monday sent a letter to the Justice Ministry documenting alleged abuses by Interior Ministry employees of the return policy.

In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Dina Silber, Asaf Weitzen and Nimrod Avigal claimed that jailed migrants are being told they will not be granted refugee status in Israel and will remain in custody unless they sign the forms agreeing to voluntary repatriation.

Around 200 African nationals have returned under the voluntary repatriation procedure for migrants from Eritrea and Sudan in the two months since Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein approved the program. According to the United Nations and human rights organizations, incarcerated individuals are by definition incapable of consenting freely to leave a country and therefore they should not be repatriated even if they sign consent forms.

The letter cites examples to substantiate the lawyers’ claims. In one case, a Sudanese man in the Saharonim detention center who had signed the consent forms told the Custody Tribunal in late July that he had done so only to obtain treatment for kidney stones. Custody Tribunal Judge Michael Silberschmidt halted his repatriation procedure and ordered the Israel Prison Service to provide immediate medical care.

Another Sudanese national told the Hotline that he had been approached by officials of the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority while he was waiting for his periodic hearing before the Custody Tribunal to begin. He said the officials told him that if he did not agree to voluntary repatriation “he would be put in restraints and sent back by force.” Such behavior by officials “could not have been your intention when the procedure was instituted,” the attorneys wrote Silber.

Weitzen and Avigal said the people who faced the heaviest pressure were individuals who requested release from custody because at least nine months had passed after they filed an asylum request, with no decision, after which time they are eligible for release. They cited the case of a Sudanese citizen who in mid-July filed a release request. The court gave the state a one-month extension to decide on his asylum request, and he remained in custody.

The man claimed that in subsequent meetings he was pressured to agree to voluntary repatriation. Avigal, who represented the man, said he himself was not notified of the meetings, a situation that raises questions about the conduct of Interior Ministry officials.

In another case, the Custody Tribunal ordered the state to release an Eritrean man released after the requisite nine months had passed without a decision on his asylum request. During the three-day period the state was given to implement the directive, the Interior Ministry told the Hotline that the man had volunteered to leave and did not want the Hotline’s representation. At a subsequent hearing the man said he wanted the Hotline’s help. He remains in detention.

“Clearly, whether he is a refugee, a labor migrant, an asylum seeker or an ‘infiltrator’ he would not have signed a ‘voluntary repatriation’ form three days before his release, because no one denies that his life is in real danger in Eritrea,” the attorneys wrote Silber. In this case, too, they said Interior Ministry personnel had approached their client without their knowledge.

The Hotline said the examples were representative and the Interior Ministry coaches migrants on what to say at their hearings.

In a response, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority said it complies with the protocol approved by the attorney general.” The Justice Ministry and the Israel Prison Service did not respond by press time.